Sam Amidon – I See the Sign

I keep thinking that this album has way more elaborate and way more dominant orchestration than the gorgeous All Is Well, but when I listen to both side by side, I don’t actually think I’m right.  Songs like Saro and a few others on All Is Well actually have tremendously rich instrumental backing, but the album as a whole still gives the impression of being really bare and stripped down.

Then again, maybe that’s just how I think about it because the first time I really fell in love with those songs was when Sam played the Bowery back in December 2008 and January 2009 (video from his January show here).  He did so with no more than his own voice, and either a guitar or a banjo (and the occasional spot of aerobics) to accompany him.  It remains one of the best and most utterly spellbinding things I have ever seen, so maybe I overlay the impression of that evening with my impression of All Is Well, and thus think of it as more minimal than it actually is.

I See the Sign has nothing of that minimalism, that’s for sure; even its quietest songs have all sorts going on.  Bedroom Community is a unique record label, that’s for sure, having collected an eclectic constellation of musicians into its orbit, from classical composer Nico Muhly, electronic composer Valgeir Sigurðsson and then to Sam himself.  They all collaborate on one another’s work, and I recently attended an amazing showcase of the kind of forward-thinking stuff they generate, when all three performed at the Roundhouse in London.

That was an amazing experience, but it was largely based around Nico Muhly.  In this case, the focus is Sam Amidon, so does it all translate?  My answer would be ‘largely’, I think.  A lot of this is frankly stunning, and the eddying arrangements serve only to give Sam’s voice even more of that macabre folk tale quality than it already has.

I still love the absolutely bare, acoustic songs more than anything though, so I find it a bit of shame that there are none to be found here.  Still, given Sam records old folk songs, if he didn’t push his interpretations and his arrangements he would basically be in danger of lapsing into karaoke, so I still think he’s right to make sure he keeps developing.

Funnily enough, for someone usually so determined to strip songs back, my favourite ones here are actually the ones with the most going on.  It’s actually the tail end of this record where I think the whole things starts to get a little bogged down.  The orchestration actually takes more of a back seat, without vanishing entirely, so it ends up being neither here nor there.  Songs like How Come That Blood, You Beter Mind and Pretty Fair Damsel are given surreal, vivid life by their arrangements.  By contrast, on later tracks, such as Kedron and Rain and Snow the extra instrumentation doesn’t really add much, and I find myself wondering why it’s there.

Maybe I just don’t like the later songs as much.  Relief (a cover of a song by the rather rapey R. Kelly) is amusing in a live setting, but I would personally not have put it on an album, and there are just two or three songs around this point which I think are a little sluggish, honestly.

I’m only nit-picking about this kind of thing because Sam Amidon is a fucking amazing artist as far as I am concerned and, consequently, when he sits down to play I pretty much expect perfection.  I do accept that this may not be entirely reasonable, of course, I just can’t stop myself doing it.

And let’s be fair, before you get the wrong impression, I think the first two thirds of this album are absolutely stunning.  I fucking love it, and pretty much all of it.  The more prominent role played by Muhly’s part in the record works fantastically – it’s within a whisker of being overdone, but always stays the right side of the line.  Sam’s voice is as gorgeous as ever, and the odd plucking of How Come That Blood melds perfectly into the beautiful Way Go Lily and then the trilling, jumpy You Better Mind.

That kind of variation of tempo is probably all that the end of the record is missing, but it doesn’t matter.  The first twenty-five minutes of this album are absolutely beautiful, and if I think some of the rest of it doesn’t quite click for me, then who cares.  That’s the point of pushing your music into new places, and I always respect people more for doing that.

Sam Amidon – How Come That Blood


Sam Amidon – Pretty Fair Damsel

Sam Amidon – Pretty Fair Damsel (from his January 2009 Toad Session)

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